Joe Biden will be the next president whether President Donald Trump likes it or not.
The president is in denial, but organizers on the ground know what’s up. They’re already coming at the president-elect with concrete demands and proposals. Biden has a long road ahead of him if he’s serious about the climate crisis—and especially so if he’s serious about centering justice. He gave organizers some big promises, so they’re already working to ensure he stays true to his word.
Welcome to The Frontline, where I’m chatting with John Paul Mejia, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. As he mentions in our conversation below, the Sunrise Movement—popular for its organizing around the Green New Deal—has already delivered President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris a climate mandate in partnership with Justice Democrats outlining their call to action. Top of the list? Developing a brand new Office of Climate Mobilization, but that’s not everything. Read more about what comes next in our interview below.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Where is your mind right now in terms of what comes next? Is there anything that you’ve been focusing your efforts on this last week?
JOSE PAUL MEJIA
This week, we delivered our climate mandate to Joe Biden, and we know everything that was at stake in the election. Biden-Harris won a bigger popular vote margin than Reagan, the biggest since FDR’s, right? And young people, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color delivered that victory in key states. The thing that was driving them to do so was on the subject of climate. Now that Joe Biden is in—and he said that climate change is the number one issue facing humanity and the number one issue for him—he has little time to act. He has to do everything in his power to address this crisis, starting commandingly on day one.
So the first thing that we’ve said to do is that he could establish an Office of Climate Mobilization whose director reports directly to the president. We’ve also put forth a pick for the President’s Cabinet. We know he’s going to need a team that embodies the ambition and diversity of this crisis—not those who got us into it.
What is the plan to keep him accountable for what he’s promised? You’ve delivered this climate mandate. What’s the plan to keep the pressure on to ensure that he actually moves in the direction that you all want to see, whether that’s the pick for the cabinet or creating this office?
There’s a combination of different efforts from a general strike to organized student actions, to having more allies in Congress pressuring bolder action every day. We’re really hitting from all angles from within the system and outside of it, which is really inspirational. Right now what we’re concentrating our efforts on is getting movement allies to be the closest to those who are able to act by putting movement allies literally in his cabinet.
Do you mind naming some of these movement allies? Who are some of the individuals you really want to see in the Cabinet?
Totally. So Secretary of the Interior, we’ve got Rep. Deb Haaland. We’ve chosen her to lead the Interior because as the first Native American to hold this position, she would usher in a new era of Indigenous authority over stolen land, and she’s been a fierce ally of our movement who has really fought for renewable energy job creation in the House.
For Secretary of State, we have proposed Rep. Barbara Lee from California. She’s been one of the few brave congressional representatives who really has been against the era of oil wars. She voted against Iraq, and we know that, as the Secretary of State, she is someone who would raise the level of ambition for climate action throughout the entire world not only by rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, like Biden’s promised to do, but more so.
In terms of Treasury, which is a huge position because we need to steer federal money to programs that encourage the development of renewable job creation and to fund a Green New Deal, we’ve picked Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts. She’s been one of our staunchest allies in Congress, and she’s taken on Wall Street her entire career, and she’s a huge Green New Deal champion and has called for transformative investments to not only tackle the climate crisis but to create millions of jobs.
We’ve got folks up and down this list that really have run on progressive platforms or have really taken charge with our movement. For example, Secretary of Labor, we’ve got Sen. Bernie Sanders. EPA Administrator, we’ve got Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Rashida Tlaib. A really ambitious list, but one that we think is necessary to shape the ambition of the Green New Deal and the executive leadership that’s gonna take.
This is one heck of a list. So how are you all feeling? Has there been any response yet from Biden’s team?
Not yet. We’re continuing to build up the pressure right now. We know that Biden has made a transition team with several names that have come up. There are still some people who have ties to the fossil fuel industry that we will just absolutely not tolerate, and we will continue to build up the pressure to make sure that the folks who are leading us out of this crisis aren’t the ones who created it.
“Biden was elected on a mandate for strong, bold, progressive action on climate, on COVID, on systemic racism, on the economy.”
I wanted to ask, John Paul, what are some of the concerns that you all have? Like you just said, seeing some of these names on the transition team. While Joe Biden was the better choice out of the two candidates we had, I know that he was not Sunrise Movement’s first choice and his track record is one that is much more moderate than climate action requires. What are the concerns from you all at Sunrise as the President-elect begins to make some key critical decisions in how he approaches his presidency?
There are lots of concerns over Biden’s centrism, but Biden has to be the leader that we elected him to be, not Mitch McConnell’s vice president. He shouldn’t let McConnell and Republicans get in the way of what’s necessary and what bold executive actions or appointments and tools he has at his disposal to make sure that he doesn’t. Biden was elected on a mandate for strong, bold, progressive action on climate, on COVID, on systemic racism, on the economy. If he fails to follow through on those mandates and opts out for incremental and centrist action instead of what people voted him on, he runs the risk of being an extremely unpopular figure. And for those reasons, we have more hope, and we find more light at the end of the tunnel in our movements and our demands rather than one politician because we know that movements are the ones that actually swing the pendulum.
Are you all amenable if he makes more centrist choices, should the Senate stay in GOP control? How are you all feeling about Senate obstacles should it stay in control of the confirmation process?
We’re thinking that Biden has to fight tooth and nail to take care of this crisis. And that’s a good question, right? Won’t McConnell block these people? First and foremost, Democrats have to take back the Senate, which will allow Biden-Harris even more ability to act on that mandate that the American people elected them on. We should follow the lead and support of organizers on the ground who delivered a victory in Georgia for Biden by investing in voter registration and mobilization of specifically the Black community and people of color.
But the question is that even if that doesn’t happen, what are we going to do? Well, even if that doesn’t happen, Biden has a mandate to act, to take his fight to Mitch McConnell, and use absolutely every tool in his executive toolbox to deliver for the American people, including recess appointments and the Vacancies Act. We know that the GOP and the Senate are increasingly becoming an unrepresentative sort of oligarchy within our democracy. Biden needs to act on what he was elected on to truly deliver for the majority of American people by saving them from the interwoven crises that we’re facing right now, instead of striking up little favors for his rich corporate cronies in the Senate.